New Delhi: India’s public service broadcaster Prasar Bharati never really became truly autonomous as it was envisaged to be — it has always done the bidding of the government of the day — and its recent threat to the PTI (Press Trust of India) is outrageous, wrong and unfair, ThePrint’s editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta said in episode 508 of Cut The Clutter.
“Sometimes it’s been better or less worse. Sometimes it’s really bad. But it has never been the public broadcaster that it was meant to be,” he said in the episode.
Gupta also highlighted how the Prasar Bharati board, which is responsible for taking decisions on important policy moves, is largely vacant, including the position of its chairman, which was vacated by former journalist A. Surya Prakash, whose term got over earlier this year.
Prasar Bharati has been under fire after it sent out a letter to PTI Saturday, stating it needs to review its relationship with the news agency. The reason, it said, was that its recent news reports were allegedly detrimental to India’s national interest and may have undermined the country’s territorial integrity.
The letter came after PTI’s interview of Chinese ambassador Sun Weidong, who blamed India for the ongoing border crisis in Ladakh and the violent face-off in Galwan Valley that killed 20 Indian soldiers.
What made the interview controversial was that the Chinese embassy cherry-picked questions and answers from the interview and put them on its website, lending the impression that PTI had asked only those questions.
‘An idealistic idea’
Gupta said Prasar Bharati was an idealistic idea that was never meant to work in India. It was a bumblebee that people thought would fly, but it did not fly, he said.
So many liberals in Indian politics, particularly on the socialist side, thought India needed to build something like the BBC, which was independent and autonomous, which will not be under state control, a true public broadcaster. After several recommendations from committees after the emergency, Prasar Bharati Act was finally implemented in 1997 under the I.K. Gujral government.
However, public broadcasting is not to be equated with state broadcasting. Both are different. “Once again, that is not being followed either in letter or in spirit,” he said.
Largely vacant Prasar Bharati board
Prasar Bharati board is supposed to have a chairman, it is supposed to have six independent members, some ex-officio members like member (finance), member (personnel), who are members from the government at this point.
Stating that the chairman of the board Surya Prakash has not been replaced, Gupta pointed out that of the six independent members, only one is in position and five places are vacant. The only one in position is actor Kajol.
“All other five places on the board are vacant, the chairman’s position is vacant. In fact, even of the ex-officio directors, the member personnel is missing. And that’s the reason when I say that this is following neither the letter nor the spirit of the Prasar Bharati Act,” he said.
PTI’s ‘controversial’ interview
Talking about the PTI’s interview, which generated a lot of controversy, he said the Chinese ambassador is expected to give the Chinese point of view in an interview.
“Chinese ambassador is in your country to give China’s point of view and it is the strength of India’s democracy that India’s preeminent news agency can go and interview China’s ambassador whereas when India’s ambassador has to be interviewed in Beijing, he has to again call out the PTI, the same news agency, Indian news agency, because China is not a democracy, India is a democracy. So this is a good way of showing the world and the Chinese that India is different from China,” said Gupta.
When the Chinese embassy picked up just three questions, it looked like these were the only questions that the PTI reporter asked. This led PTI to come under a lot of attack, including from some very well-informed people.
However, the next day, after a lot of controversy, PTI put out a statement and clarified this confusion arose because the Chinese embassy only picked and chose those three questions.
“If we looked at everything. It looked like it was all right. Then, when the Indian ambassador Vikram Mistry in Beijing spoke to PTI, PTI put out a tweet saying that he said that the onus is on China to restore normalcy by taking its forces back to its side of the LAC (Line of Actual Control). Now once again, that was seen as as if the Indian ambassador, in the way he spoke, had confirmed that Chinese forces work in Indian territory.”
Prasar Bharat’s threat to PTI
Prasar Bharati is among the largest single customers of PTI. Its billing actually is nine and a half crores a year, which for a company like PTI is a lot.
“They’ve been holding back about 25 per cent of that, saying that we want to renegotiate with you.” So even then, about Rs 7 crore comes to PTI.
Now if Prasar Bharati withdraws the PTI service, it will be crippled, it will be hit very badly.
“So, in this situation for PTI to come under this kind of vicious attack and threat from what is obviously a government-owned entity is outrageous. And it’s completely wrong and unfair.”
“And no surprise that many media organisations have immediately taken a view on this and said that it should be protected from this kind of harassment, because you can agree or disagree with a publication, but to call them anti-national just like that is I think, is a stretch.”
In conclusion of his argument, Gupta mentioned how during the Falklands War in 1982-83 between Britain and Argentina, Margaret Thatcher’s government accused the BBC of being partisan and not being patriotic enough.
BBC Radio’s managing director, Richard Francis, gave a speech to the International Press Institute in Madrid, where he said the widow of Portsmouth is no different from the widow of Buenos Aires, and that the BBC needs no lesson in patriotism.
“As far as I’m concerned, that is truly a defining statement on what a public broadcaster should be,” said Gupta.